BITRE mode share
Share (%) of total passenger kilometres by mode in Australia’s capital cities, 1976/77 to 2013/14 (source data: BITRE)

The start of an election year is a good time to take stock of the infrastructure challenges facing Australian cities. It’s especially important given that by 2051 Sydney and Melbourne might each have to accommodate a population of around eight million.

At least in terms of transport, the outlook appears at first glance to be quite promising. Travel by private vehicles has fallen consistently in per capita terms in Australian cities since what might well prove to be “peak car” back in 2003/04.

Urban public transport patronage on the other hand is growing in line with or faster than population. The level of service offered to passengers in most cities has improved substantially and investment in new infrastructure, both real and promised, is increasing. (1)

So what about outcomes? What’s been achieved in terms of the important goal of shifting travel in our capital cities from private vehicles to public transport?

The answer, as the first exhibit clearly shows, is hardly anything. Private vehicles currently account for a whopping 90% of all kilometres of motorised passenger travel in Australia’s capital cities.

Yes, 90%. And that share’s been pretty well flat for the last 37 years. (2)

There are differences between cities but they’re not great. The private vehicle share is lowest in Australia’s largest and by far its densest city, Sydney (86%), and highest in Canberra and Hobart (96%). At 89% and 92% respectively, Melbourne and Brisbane are close to the average.

The first exhibit also shows there was a slight dip in private vehicle’s mode share from 2003/04 and a small increase in public transport’s share.

It’s not a cause for optimism, though; it’s only a one percentage point change. Moreover, car use is only falling when it’s measured in per capita terms.

While it grew much slower than population over the last ten years, car travel still increased in absolute terms by 12.1 billion kilometres (see second exhibit). That’s a lot of extra kilometres of driving that city roads have had to accommodate over the last decade.

The mode share of public transport increased by one percentage point but it’s unlikely that was primarily due to the lower rate of growth in car use.

Travel by train, tram, bus and ferry grew by a very healthy 5 billion passenger kilometres over the last ten years, but that was still considerably less than the increase in car kilometres. Over the last five years it grew by only one eighth as much as the absolute increase in car travel; in fact it too grew slower than population.

It’s likely the greater part of the fall in per capita car travel is explained by structural factors – such as the ageing population, later marriage, more time in tertiary education, and improved data communications – rather than by travellers substituting public transport for cars.

The reality is that policy has done virtually nothing to reduce the ongoing – and increasing – use of cars. There’s very little to suggest that significant policy-induced change in car use is in the offing.

Politicians like to highlight the construction of new public transport mega projects as evidence they’re on top of the task of preparing the nation’s major cities for anticipated growth.

These projects are mostly necessary and desirable for improving the usefulness of public transport in capital cities, but they’ll make only a small dent at best in the use of cars.

It’s almost certain that other than in some select areas like the city centre, cars will continue to dominate our metropolitan areas for a long time yet; driverless cars are likely to extend that domination.

Politicians prefer to avoid acknowledging this reality because managing car use is politically difficult; it’s easier to pretend that new rail projects will have a big impact on urban motoring.

We certainly need to improve public transport, but we can’t continue to blithely ignore the mode that accounts for nine tenths of motorised travel in Australia’s relatively low density capital cities. We can’t continue under the illusion cars are magically going to go away or at least fall dramatically out of favour.

Of course cars provide many benefits but they also come with disadvantages. Governments need to take serious action to ameliorate the severe problems – like congestion, pollution, emissions, injury, noise and poor amenity – associated with high levels of car use in big cities.

There’s a suite of regulatory and taxation measures – like congestion pricing, vehicle fuel/emissions standards, land use controls – available to politicians to manage car use. They’re politically difficult actions but they’re the only plausible way to make a significant impact on the way we’ll use cars over the next 30 years or so.

If the Prime Minister is serious about action rather than rhetoric, he’ll take the lead in broadening the discussion about the future of cities to include strong measures to “tame” the use of private vehicles in cities.


  1. When he was Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese liked to tell voters that the Rudd/Gillard governments “committed more funding to urban public transport than all our predecessors since Federation combined”.
  2. The charts are based on updated data prepared by the Bureau of infrastructure, transport and regional economics (BITRE), Australian infrastructure statistics, yearbook 2015. Private transport is passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles and motor cycles. Public transport is trains, light rail/trams, buses, and ferries.
Growth in passenger kilometres in Australian capital cities by mode (source: BITRE)
Growth in passenger kilometres in Australian capital cities by mode (source data: BITRE)